As his title of environmental, safety, training, and security manager for RMC Allied Readymix suggests, Jim Simpson starts early to keep up with activities at the 22 ready-mixed concrete plants and 8 concrete block production facilities around greater Atlanta. He has embarked on a mission of bilingual education that has helped RMC Allied attract good workers and maintain its record as a safe workplace.
Atlanta has grown dramatically and drawn a large number of Hispanics to its promise of well-paying jobs and opportunity. In such a growth economy, RMC Allied and other area concrete producers have a constant challenge in recruiting enough qualified drivers to operate their fleets every day. On any given day, some industry experts estimate that as many as 5% to 10% of mixer trucks are parked because of a driver shortage.
"In our workplace we have noticed a new worker emerging,"Simpson says. However, "In many situations, our new workers can't understand our traditionally worded signs and warning labels." While he was investigating a sudden rash of jobsite incidents and reported near-misses between the rear-discharge mixer chute and the contractor's spotter, Simpson became aware of just how serious the communication issue was becoming.
During an investigation of a near-tipover by a mixer, Simpson noticed that the significant cause of the occurrence was the absence of an English-speaking lead man, which created problems for his drivers. The English-speaking drivers couldn't understand the spotter's verbal commands, even though each truck's discharge chute and rear fender are equipped with stickers showing the proper hand signals.
Simpson has addressed the problem by installing custom-made stickers with both Spanish and English titles along with the proper jobsite hand signals. "Since we have installed the Spanish label and worked with our major customers on proper communication, we have all but eliminated any jobsite backing/pouring problems," says Simpson.
Spurred by the success of his Spanish sticker program, Simpson convinced upper management to focus a portion of its recruitment on the area's growing Hispanic population. To effectively recruit bilingual employees, Simpson found it important to understand their culture and support groups. Many support groups have been very effective in supplying Allied with qualified job applicants.
Periodically, RMC Allied supports "English as a Second Language" classes at community centers near its plants. Project Safe Georgia, a coalition of businesses, safety, and health professionals, is another outreach of RMC Allied's community involvement.
The challenge of training Spanish-speaking workers in safety isn't limited to Atlanta. According to Tom Broderick, director of Chicago-based Construction Safety Council (CSC), investigations of many fatal accidents list the worker's inability to read or speak English as a major contributing cause. According to information from U.S. Census data, between 1996 and 1998 there was a 40% increase in Hispanic fatalities in the construction industry.
To counteract such a dramatic and deadly trend, Broderick has organized a national ad hoc committee of safety professionals to promote bilingual training for the construction trades. Broderick says committee members generally agreed they were frustrated because of a lack of good training resources for bilingual training.
Dr. Fernando Marroquin, who works in the University of Alabama's Center of Continuing Education, strongly suggests that Spanish translations in many training-resource materials aren't effective due to differences in vocabulary. Marroquin has been involved in the translation of a number of industrial safety programs from English to Spanish. "My focus has been on the correct selection of vocabulary, trying to find words with the same meaning despite economic or regional differences," says Marroquin.
Marroquin's department serves as a regional OSHA consultative center and is working hard to establish itself as an international center on safety. Later this year, Marroquin hopes to present a workshop in Mexico City on construction safety. Many U.S. companies find it difficult to teach safety in Mexico, and the government recently instituted its own version of OSHA, says Marroquin. "I hope that by upgrading the safety training techniques of Mexico's workforce, we'll upgrade our workforce as well, since so many employees eventually emigrate."
That's a new view of safety training for a changing workforce. Similarly, RMC Allied's effort to recruit, train, and retain non-English-speaking workers has offered Jim Simpson a different perspective of safety. "Not only have I helped my company grow, I have helped someone feed their family," he says.